WNIJ Partners With Report For America

Report for America is a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues and communities. This year's cohort has been placed with more than 160 local news organizations across 45 states and Puerto Rico, including two journalists right here at WNIJ. We are thrilled to announce the addition of JuanPablo Ramirez-Franco to our news team, and a new role for WNIJ reporter Yvonne Boose.

Yvonne Boose covers artistic, cultural, and spiritual expressions in the COVID-19 era. This includes how members of community cultural groups are finding creative and innovative ways to enrich their personal lives through these expressions individually and within the context of their larger communities.

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco covers substandard housing and police-community relations. An audio producer and journalist based out of Chicago, he’s also been a bilingual facilitator at the StoryCorps office.

He will continue Sarah Jesmer’s award-winning work at WNIJ covering issues of social justice and identity. Jesmer earned a top award from the Illinois Associated Press for reports including: Inside DeKalb County's Unincorporated ApartmentsWigs, Lipstick & Sparkles: The Thriving Drag Scene In Northern Illinois; and Kish College: Anonymous Letters And A Controversial Investigation.

These reporting positions come at a time when local journalism is already reeling from years of newsroom cuts and unforeseen challenges brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Both positions are partially funded by a grant from Report for America.  WNIJ must raise an additional $30,000 in local matching funds.  Support these important voices in our community by donating to WNIJ’s portion here.

Yvonne and Juanpablo’s stories on our community will be collected below.

https://www.aurora-il.org/

The Aurora City Council recently approved a special sign district that has been under review for the past month. This came after controversy arose over the painting of a proposed mural. 

Some local artists and other residents took to social media to express their disappointment in the process for assigning the artist for the mural.

The work, featuring the word “Aurora” in capital, brightly-colored block letters, is to be located on a wall of Tortas Guadalajara located at 5 S. Lake street. This restaurant is on the western edge of the city’s downtown.

Yvonne Boose

A northern Illinois art festival took place Saturday despite the pandemic, but the setting wasn’t as intimate as in previous years.

Rockford Symphony Orchestra.

Phase 4 of the “Restore Illinois” plan allows outdoor concerts to take place as long as the audience doesn’t exceed 20% of the normal venue capacity. That could still be a lot more than the number allowed indoors. So, most bands have opted to have outdoor concerts this summer. A Rockford music organization is following this same tune. 

The Rockford Symphony Orchestra is having its first concert since March. Proceeds from the concerts will support the musicians of the orchestra. Most of them haven't worked since the pandemic started. 

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco

In Rockford, some frontline public library workers are asking for more safety precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

 

 

Alice Mitchell, a children’s librarian at the Rockford Public Library’s East Branch, said that returning to work hasn’t been easy. “It's been immensely stressful," she said. "Everything is stressful. every single minute of the day.”    

 

Photo provided by Mark Spates Smith

Some say Blacks use their faith as therapy. About 50% more whites received mental health care than Blacks in 2018, according to a Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration survey. A few Black professionals share their thoughts on this. 

Mark Spates Smith is the pastor of Spates Temple in Elgin. He said therapy is a taboo subject in the Black church.  

Peter Medlin

The City of DeKalb is selling the old City Hall building and using some of those funds to buy body cams for police in an effort to increase police transparency.

Between the dash cam footage of Elonte McDowell’s controversial arrest late last year and the recent protests that followed the death of George Floyd, DeKalb community members have been calling for leaders to reimagine not just the culture of local policing but how police are funded.

Provided by Rodrigo Ceballos.

A Black Lives Matter mural on Alpine Dam, in Rockford was recently painted over by the city. It was done as part of renovations to the dam in Aldeen Park. The artist of the mural shared his thoughts on the subject. 

Picture provided by FourPoets OneMic

Welcome to Poetically Yours, where you'll hear the voices of Illinois poets as they share their words about the world around them. This week features Leaux of FourPoets, OneMic. It's called "Today."

Today

Provided by Chantel Charis

A DeKalb musician is partnering with a local social justice group to put on an evening of music.

Violin vigils have taken place across the country to honor Elijah McClain. McClain, 23, was a Black man who died last year, after an encounter with the Aurora, Colorado police.

Violinist Chantel Charis said a Chicago vigil sparked the interest in doing something locally in DeKalb.   

Yvonne Boose

The United States Postal Service will halt several controversial cost-cutting moves until after November’s general election. 

 

 

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy announced that the postal service will re-instate overtime hours and end the removal of mail-sorting machines among other measures related to its operations.

Yvonne Boose

Some children dream of being police officers. A northern Illinois park district took some youth through a simulation.

Fake gun shots rang during the Rockford Park district’s annual youth police academy last week. This year’s program was funded by an Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority grant. 

Yvonne Boose

A longstanding Rockford arts center is having a moving sale this week. Until recently, Mendelssohn Performing Arts Center used three locations: the Emerson building, First Presbyterian Church and Starr Center.

The center has decided to condense all operations to the Starr Center. Last year, the Emerson House was put up for sale. An offer was recently made. Mendelssohn is now looking to sell the First Presbyterian Church building, which it had used for concerts and office space. 

HomeStart

This week, Governor Pritzker and the IDHA announced that the deadline to apply for rental assistance has been extended by one week to August 28th.

Yvonne Boose

The Winnebago County Fair was canceled due to COVID-19. This included the County Fair's Queen pageant. Instead, an ambassador was appointed Tuesday evening.  

Joie Vittetow volunteered at the Rockford Park District’s Youth Police Academy this week. This is one of many events that she will attend during her time as ambassador.

“And this weekend, I’m hoping to go the Burpee Museum event for ‘Girls in Science.’ Where they’re going to be demonstrating insects and stuff,” she shares. “Other than that, I’ll be definitely doing parades if they’re not canceled.” 

Provided by Karen Fullett-Christensen

Welcome to Poetically Yours, where you'll hear the voices of Illinois poets as they share their words about the world around them. This week, features Aurora's Poet Laureate, Karen Fullett-Christensen. Her poems include, "No Longer Virgins" and "We Are All in Chains."

No Longer Virgins

We have bitten the apple

we have pulled back the curtain

we are no longer virgins

so, what do we do?

Once the forest is breached

https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100052971930134

Most performance stages across the country are empty due to COVID-19. But this doesn’t mean playwrights have to stop writing. A northern Illinois theater is giving these artists a medium to showcase their work.  

The Kane Repertory Theatre in St. Charles started a project in May called the New Play Lab.  

Provided by Christopher Sims

Welcome to Poetically Yours, where you'll hear the voices of Illinois poets as they share their words about the world around them. This week features  Christopher Sims of Rockford. This poem is called, "Minneapolis Is Burning."

Minneapolis Is Burning

Minneapolis is burning.

For justice, we Black

people are yearning.

The hate here in the US,

we're confronting,

https://www.facebook.com/brandy.gilliam.3

Some people use their creativity to express how they feel about the world around them. Two northern Illinois musicians are doing just that.

Aurora hip-hop artist Brandy Gilliam, also known as K.I.K. and rock musician Shawnzie Gade are making a timely album. They are asking other local artists to take part. Gilliam explained the vision.

Yvonne Boose

The pandemic is still here but some people seem a little more comfortable with socializing. A monthly gathering in Aurora took place Friday after being totally virtual since April.  

A smaller than usual crowd showed up in downtown Aurora for First Fridays. People wore masks and greeted each other with fist bumps and elbow taps.  

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco

14 protesters were arrested Friday during a demonstration organized by the May 30th Alliance outside the Rockford City Market. Upwards of 50 protesters gathered across the street from the market at the Joe Marino Park and called for solidarity. 

 

 

Artist - Barbara Lundeen

“Restore Illinois” Phase 4 plan is giving people the opportunity to enjoy their pastimes. A northern Illinois art center is answering the call by continuing one of its annual exhibits.

This is the third year for the Absolutely Abstract Art Exhibition at the Next Picture Show community fine arts center in Dixon.

Michael Glenn is the executive director of the center. He said there are all sorts of media on display. One includes alcohol ink, which he calls a throwback. 

Tensions escalated during a “Back the Blue” rally held Saturday on the west side of Rockford. In all, 17 protesters were arrested at that and other events over the weekend. 

 

 

The rally drew hundreds of law enforcement supporters to the Winnebago County Criminal Justice Center. Dozens of counter protesters also gathered to disrupt the rally.

 

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco

Over the weekend, State Representative John Cabello replied to a Facebook user who asked him if, “now is it time to lock and load? Asking for a friend.” Cabello replied to the comment by saying, “not yet but be ready.” 

Winnebago State’s Attorney Marilyn Hite-Ross said in a press release that the representative’s rhetoric is unacceptable. She said that, "In my office, if anyone made comments of that nature, they would no longer be employed by my office."

https://www.facebook.com/groups/255689942351896/

The Freeport Masonic Temple is looking to renovate its nearly century-old building but it needs assistance.

Bill Leser is the chairperson of the fundraising committee for the temple. He said last year’s winter was not kind to the building, specifically, the top.

“We've actually got five roofs here. The worst one is the auditorium, which has to be fixed now," he explained. "So that's scheduled to be repaired by Labor Day.”

https://www.facebook.com/elcrockford/

Some religious groups are LGBTQ-affirming. But this hasn’t always been the case. A few individuals remember a different time.   

LGBTQ-affirming churches do not consider homosexuality a sin.

Frank Langholf is the pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Rockford. He identifies as straight.

He said he began to question his thoughts about accepting the gay community into churches after his own life changed.

Yvonne Boose

Some northern Illinois residents felt a sense of normalcy as they enjoyed live music at the park. A city band continued its 166th season with a few changes.

The sun was starting to set in Hopkins Park as the DeKalb Municipal Band filled the air with sweet melodies Tuesday evening.

Kirk Lundbeck is the conductor of the band. He said as soon as Illinois went into Phase 4, he started working hard to put the season together.

Rockford Police Department

The Rockford Police Department announced that the use of force at a police protest in May was lawful and justified.

 

 

After reviewing 120 hours of video footage and 90 police reports, the Rockford Police Department concluded that its use of pepper spray, tear gas and less lethal munitions during the May 30th protest were within proper procedure.

Mayor Tom McNamara said the decision was unanimous.

https://www.facebook.com/secondfirstchurch/

Cities across the country have used murals to enhance the look of their neighborhoods. Monday, Rockford unveiled a community mural at SecondFirst Church located at 318 N. Church Street.  

Tia Richardson is a community mural artist from Milwaukee. She worked with the church and Jeremiah Development to raise $30,000 for the mural.

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco

In Rockford, a parade of cars filled the streets for a demonstration against schools reopening during the pandemic. Quetzia Ramirez is a parent liaison at Jefferson High School and her sign read, "25+ Students In One Classroom Cannot Social Distance."

The car parade began at 10:00 a.m. at Rock Valley College and included upwards of 50 cars. The cars were covered in signs and writing that expressed concern with schools reopening in the fall. Ramirez said that’s why she joined the car parade in the first place. 

 

 

Yvonne Boose

Lots of outdoor concerts normally happen during summertime. COVID-19 hampered some of those plans. But the beat went on for one northern Illinois city.

On a pleasant summer night, people sat in small groups within Woodstock’s town square. They listened to "I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghost!"-themed music performed by the Woodstock City Band as part of its 136th Season.  

Daniel Campbell is the managing director of the Woodstock Opera House. He said there were thoughts about canceling the series.

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